The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. ‘Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?’ he asked. ‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end, then stop.’ We, on the other hand, will have to do almost exactly the opposite: we will have to begin at the end, go on till we stop, then find that it is, after all, only the beginning.
To start, then, at the end: before we can be introduced to God, it would be a big help if we could have some idea of who or what it is that we are being introduced to.
So who or what is God?
Speaking of God: philosophers and poets
Countless answers to that question have been given during the long course of human history, some expressed in practical ways like sacrifice and worship, others in reflective ways like those of theology and philosophy, or in imaginative ways like art and music. Each of us perhaps has a personal answer already, including maybe that God is not anything because God does not exist.
That particular answer (that God does not exist) is one reason why the reflective ways of theology and philosophy have come into being. Philosophers and theologians respond to questions asked of God, not only to the question, ‘Does God exist?’, but also to such questions as, ‘If God is supposed to be all-powerful (omnipotent) and all-loving, why is there so much suffering and evil?’; or, ‘If God is believed to be omniscient (knowing everything including what I choose to do), is my “choice” real since its outcome is already known?’
There is a multitude of other questions asked about God: is God a person? Does God answer prayer? If so, how? Is God one or many? Fundamentally, however, philosophers and theologians try to make clear what God would have to be for God to be truly God-to be, that is, the One from whom the universe comes and by whom it is kept in being. What would God have to be in order to do all that and to be truly worthy of the sacrifice and worship that humans have offered for so long in so many different ways?
God, to repeat the point, has been described in many ways in the long history of religions, and the word ‘God’ has had many different meanings. God has been defined as ‘that than which nothing greater can be thought of’ and as ‘a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere’. At the opposite extreme, the actress Jane Russell described God as ‘a livin’ doll, a right nice guy’ and Chesterton wrote:
Some see God like Guthrum,
Crowned, with a great beard curled,
But I see God like a good giant
That labouring lifts the world.
When, as a boy, Augustine (a Christian bishop and teacher, 354-430 CE) prayed to God he thought of God as ‘some large being who, although not apparent to our senses, is able to hear us and to help us.’ God has often been described like that, in human terms, as someone very like ourselves but on a much higher level - as Mother, for example, or as King. That is not surprising, for how else could God be imagined? The French philosopher Montesquieu (1689-1755) once observed that if triangles had a God, God would have three sides; and his near contemporary Voltaire (1694–1778) commented on Genesis 1.27 (‘God made man in his image’), ‘God made man in his own image and man has more than returned the compliment.’
For philosophers and theologians, it has been a major part of their work to examine and question to what extent, if any, those descriptions are adequate, and where they fail. More positively, they are asking what God must be once we realise that God is not ‘someone very like ourselves but a bit bigger’. Over thousands of years, they have addressed the issue of what we can truly or (in terms of logic and argument) validly say about God.
As a result, they have ended up with definitions of what the word ‘God’ must mean if it is to have a truly significant sense. Definitions of what God must be in order to be God cannot, of course, demonstrate that God exists, but they are nevertheless important because they track the rigour of human thought in relation to God, and they at least give us a first idea of who or what it is that we are being introduced to.
That is why these texts are beginning where the long history of philosophy and theology has, thus far, ended up. We are beginning to the end in order that we can see from the outset where the long history of the intellectual and reflective response to God has been leading. What is it that we are trying to talk about?
Or to put the question slightly differently, in the words of the contemporary philosopher Richard Swinburne: How is the claim that there is a God to be understood? I suggest-provisionally-in this way: there exists necessarily and eternally a person essentially bodiless, omnipresent, creator and sustainer of any universe there may be, perfectly free, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, and a source of moral obligation.
But if that is where we are going to end up, are we sure that we want to get there? It sounds very different from Indian villagers shaping images in clay and adorning them with flowers, or from Muslims turning five times each day towards Mecca and offering prayer, or from Sikh mothers placing a drop of honey on the tongue of a new-born child and whispering in its ear the Mul Mantra.
Such people have been a vast majority throughout human history, as they still are. For them, God is simply there, the one in whose presence and company they live, often in an undramatic way, but on occasion with a very direct sense of vision and encounter. They have found (without necessarily thinking too much about it) that God gives meaning and purpose to their lives as well as strength and support in times of trouble.
The poet Les Murray tried to capture this sense of the constant presence of God when he wrote that God is in the world as the poetry is in the poem-echoing another poet, Campantar from S. India (7th/8th century CE), who wrote that God is of constant effect in the world as the sense is within speech. But here the gap between the philosophers and the poets seems extremely wide. When a poet and psalmist asked the question, ‘Who is the King of glory?’, the answer given was very different from that of the philosopher: ‘It is the Lord strong and mighty, even the Lord mighty in battle … , even the Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory.’ How can that vivid sense of God be related to the God of the philosophers? How can ‘a person essentially bodiless’ be mighty in battle, smiting enemies and ‘killing mighty kings’? How, in India, can a source of moral obligation slaughter her consort Shiva and dance naked on his corpse as does the bloodthirsty Kali, the embodiment of the destructive energy of Time? When the French philosopher and mathematician, Pascal (16231662) felt that he had a direct experience of God it was like a burning fire far removed from the God of philosophical reflection:
The year of grace 1654 . . .
From about half past ten at night until about half past midnight,
GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob
not of the philosophers and of the learned.
Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace. . . .
Pascal’s experience seemed to him far removed from philosophers thinking and writing about God. And yet, if we are hoping to be ‘introduced to God’, as the title of this book suggests, we have to ask how the two are connected. How is the widely-claimed experience of God (fire and certitude, joy and peace) related to the careful and thoughtful reflection of the philosophers and theologians? Or to put it the other way round, why have the philosophers ended up defining God as ‘necessarily and eternally a person essentially bodiless’ and so on, where believers have simply bowed their heads in adoration and prayer?
The two are most obviously related to the fact that both the believers and the philosophers are using words and language to speak in different ways about the same subject matter-namely, God. Believers speak to God and speak of God in whatever words and languages are available to them in their own place and time; they even include sounds that lie beyond the words of everyday use as, for example, in mantras or in what is known in Christianity as ‘speaking in tongues’. Philosophers consider the words and the claims that underlie them, and they ask what the underlying claims imply, and whether they can be expressed truly or validly in a more detached way.
How the two are related can be seen, by way of example, in the words of two poems from very different times and places, Psalm 24 (from which came the question above, ‘Who is the King of glory?’) and ‘Marumat first tantakam’ of Appar (7th century in South India). The words are vivid and personal, and yet they point to the more dispassionate and abstract conclusions of the philosophers: the two belong together.
Psalm 24 begins:
The earth is the Lord's, and all that therein is: the compass of the world and they that dwell therein. For he hath founded it upon the seas: and prepared it upon the floods.
Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord: or who shall rise up in his holy place?
Even he that hath clean hands, and a pure heart: and that hath not lift up his mind unto vanity, nor sworn to deceive his neighbour.
He shall receive the blessing from the Lord: and righteousness from the God of his salvation.
That is a poetic way of speaking of God as ‘creator and sustainer of any universe there may be, perfectly good, and a source of moral obligation’ (as Swinburne put it), but it has done so in the words of one who is approaching the Temple in Jerusalem in order to worship God. Similarly, vs.7 of Appar’s poem speaks of God as ‘eternally a person, omnipresent, perfectly free, omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good’, but it does so in the language of a devoted lover:
Our sole duty is joyful to sing
the glory of him who manifests himself
as the moving and the still,
as earth, water, fire, wind, and sky,
as the small and the great,
as hard to reach, yet easily attained
by his lovers,
as the highest reality, immeasurably great,
as infinite Sadāśiva, as you and me.